|Ambiguity is essential in P&P
Written by gianni
(5/22/2010 4:09 a.m.)
In a recent message, I alluded to Austen's delicious wit, enhanced by her delicious ambiguity, and promised a message discussing these ideas.
Although I don't yet consider myself on firm ground for presentation, I've run out of time to dither, so I'll just have to dump my partially-formed ideas on you all, and let the chips fall where they may. Sorry, I would have gone through and referenced everything, but there just isn't time left. I hope Cheryl and the moderators will forgive and indulge me.
In particular, I've expressed ideas concerning Darcy, Denny, and Charlotte that go against the tide. I have other disruptive ideas, too. I think there's a legitimate point of view (let's leave aside whether I subscribe to these views for now) that:
- Darcy was never fundamentally snobbish; his arrogant behavior came from pride in position, yes, but also from the belief that a man in his position was expected to act this way, and that if he appeared weak, he was likely to be taken advantage of. And no one had ever told him his behavior was offensive (consider Mr. Bennet's comment that He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything, in ch. 59. Mr. Bennet!
- Darcy was truly inarticulate, because he was deeply introverted, and maybe even shy. And if he showed shyness, it would be taken as weakness. I see frequent references to "witty repartee", as if Darcy were being witty along with Lizzy, but I'm completely unable to see any wit on his side. Yes, Lizzy is scintillating; yes, Darcy replies to her barbs. But his responses are always intelligent, never witty, often simply dull. And I've truly looked for some of this wittiness on his part. The nearest I can find to wit is his reported sneer, "She a beauty! I'd as soon call her mother a wit(ch. 45)."
- Denny was not necessarily an accomplice of Wickham, or even in the know, in any of his depredations, including the affair with Lydia. Indeed, a perfectly good alternative interpretation of Denny's involvement in the Wickham-Lydia affair has Denny disgusted with Wickham's behavior long before Wickham flees Brighton (my message 45830)
- Lizzy's reaction to Charlotte's acceptance of Collins is extravagant. Charlotte has good reason to accept Collins's proposal, and less good reason to refuse it. Indeed, Lizzy herself sees the light after visiting them at Hunsford, and the long threads on the subject have done nothing to sway my opinion. Charlotte's is a good decision that may or may not end well, but she has the tools and the will to bring her marriage to a sound footing, if it can be done at all, and she was almost certainly destined for discomfort, if not misery (consider Miss Bates in Emma), without Collins.
- Bingley is frequently represented almost as a weak-minded, subservient toy for Darcy. But consider, he rented Netherfield without the least textual evidence of consultation with Darcy. Indeed, Darcy's initial attitude at the Meryton assembly could be seen as resulting from displeasure that Bingley went off on this wild, impetuous tangent without consulting him. His testy comment that Darcy can go to bed if he doesn't want to attend the Netherfield ball shows no particular fear of Darcy's possibly displeased reaction. Bingley's reaction to Darcy's confession of his hiding Jane's presence in London also shows he can think and react for himself.
- Mr. Bennet's sarcasm has been described as consistently improper; a recent thread (message 46158) opened to me a new view of Mr. Bennet that again reveals Austen's genius.
Do I subscribe to these ideas? In all cases, they are my presently preferred interpretation. Some have been stable from my first reading; some have changed once or more when Pemberleans have convinced me of their point of view; some are more or less tentative, and might even change with my mood :-).
In general, the most forceful arguments against alternative ideas revolve around the ON (Omniscient Narrator). Knowing that these arguments will give others pause, as they did me (it's really persuasive to say this is what the author intended), I looked into what members of other venues think of the narrator as an authority.
Well! My single college lit class from 40 years ago certainly didn't have all this. Besides the extensive Wikipedia resources, I found others.
- There are many different points of view, represented by different types of narrator. A brief summary is at http://www.roanestate.edu/owl&writingcenter/OWL/ElementsLit.html. There are many other similar summaries; Google is your friend.
- A more detailed description, http://people.usd.edu/~mrogge/WC/210S98fictionterms.html, gives us several types of third-person narrator (we can eliminate immediately first-person and second-person; third-person neutral omniscience is easily discarded, as is the unreliable narrator)
- We can eventually discard (at least, I can) the selective limited omniscient narrator and the third-person objective narrator
- That leaves editorial omniscience (the narrator judges actions and thoughts) and selective omniscience (the narrator tells from a single or a few characters' points of view).
- Most of our group seem to ascribe all of Austen's narration to the editorial omniscience point of view. However, several references, such as http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/narratology/terms/omniscient.html, cast doubt on the absolutist authority: the Purdue staff say "Of course, the omniscient narrator does not therefore tell the reader or viewer everything, at least not until the moment of greatest effect. "
- Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third-person_omniscient_narrative) and others describe Austen's works as third-person omniscient narratives because she switches point of view from one character to another.
- And so forth.
Where does this leave us?
The authority of the narrator is not necessarily absolute. Furthermore, the narrator is not necessarily giving us the whole story at any point. Finally, what does not show explicitly in any of these scholarly references, or in the (not necessarily scholarly) Wikipedia is that what is said is open to interpretation, which is what I was really hoping to find in the course of this research.
So, I haven't been able to debunk the absolutists, but I have found some scholarly support for my doubts, which pleases me greatly. I've read Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield, and enjoyed them. But I have no particular desire to go through them again. I've read The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia twice, and will probably read them again someday. I've read hundreds of other books, and some I will likely read again.
In the two years since I discovered Austen, I've read P&P at least a dozen times, Mansfield Park once, and the others two or three times each. Compared with Austen, most others' characters are almost line drawings. Some are as witty as Austen; most are more exciting (in plot progression) than Austen; most are easier to read than Austen.
None have taken me over like Austen.